First published by The Atlas Society.
One of the more poetic events in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is when the protagonist, Howard Roark comes to watch Dominique posing naked for Mallory’s marble sculpture. The sculpture is of the human spirit destined for the Stoddard Temple. The three of them experience a perfect synergy of admiration, creativity, and beauty.
Further plot events see the destruction of the Stoddard Temple, one of the many painful obstacles Roark needs to overcome to continue his unique and innovative vision of architecture.
Stills from Song of Songs starring Marlene Dietrich and Brian Aherne
In a way, we can look at art history and see some patterns similar to The Fountainhead that include the beautiful nude, innovations, and the power of the creative artist.
First Artists to Sign their Works
Tydeus, 560 BC
“Sophilos and Tydeus, were the first artists to sign their artworks.”
In the 6th Century, BC, Greek artisans such as Sophilos and Tydeus were the first artists to sign their artworks, taking pride in their originality and skill in depicting the human subject clothed and nude: In a sense copyrighting them. Paralleling the significance of the individual at this time Solon, the lawgiver, “is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy.”
Larger than Life Nudes in Honor of the First Democracy
Some 50 years later the heroic sculpture group Harmodius and Aristogeiton by Antenor was commissioned in honor of the creation of the world’s first Democracy. They were brothers who slew the tyrant Hipparchus, opening the doors for Democracy.
The Doryphoros by Polyclitus
One of the greatest innovators was Polyclitus, 430 BC. He is best known for his sculpture The Doryphoros and his treatise The Canon, perhaps the first written art treatise (lost to us now, but known through secondary sources). In both theory and practice, he created a method of proportions based on the little finger as the unit of measurement. Variations of his concepts of measuring parts of the body are still taught in life drawing classes today, 2,600 years later!
Measuring proportions in life drawing class, photo attributes unknown.
I would like to emphasize that, then as now, the natural-looking nude in painting and sculpture is a most difficult subject to master. Non-artists can take that for granted with the emergence of photography. It has been cited that to excel in figurative art it takes 10,000 to 20,000 hours of studying artists’ anatomy, measurement, form, composition, and for painting, light and shadow.
Around 350 BC, Praxiteles created one of the most famous sculptures of the Ancient world, The Aphrodite of Cnidus, here represented by The Colonna Venus – a Roman copy. It was the first life-size female nude. Praxiteles pushed the boundaries in both subject (the female nude) and in developing the most life-like texture of skin. Nanette Salomon, professor of Art History at the College of Staten Island and curator of the College’s Art Gallery, writes: “The idea of Praxiteles’ nude Aphrodite covering her pubis soon became an enormous success, generating an endless stream of derivations, imitations and replicas. The Knidia can be seen as the starting point of a new history in art. It is a history that privileges the female over the male nude.”
Jennifer Grossman interviews Michael Newberry about philosophical roots of Postmodern Art and about pornography vs the nude in art. Listen now.
Praxiteles’ contemporary Aristotle was the first to create a comprehensive system of philosophy and was noted for his stress on perception. We can see a connection between the innovation of forming principles from perceptions to sculpting the texture of flesh from observing living people.
Praxiteles, The Colonna Venus – a Roman copy
A sculptor is restrained by the medium of form to express such things as beauty, groundedness, and believability. Artists of ancient Greece lead with innovations in proportions, a key to beauty; how to shift the forms of the figure to make them look natural and grounded; and how to integrate anatomical knowledge and posture to give them realism.
“… like Roark, he furthered his right to create without censorship.”
Aristophanes, a young contemporary of Polyclitus, created the comedy The Babylonians that ruthlessly skewered the most powerful man in Athens, Cleon. Cleon then sued Aristophanes for defamation, and Aristophanes won (through a jury). In doing so, like Roark, he furthered his right to create without censorship.
It is hard to know which comes first, the beautiful nude in art or ideas of reason, individualism, and unbounded optimism, but they are mutually supportive of one another.
In future articles with the theme of the beautiful nude in art, I will discuss the Renaissance, The Enlightenment, the Romantic era, revolutionary America, and today’s Post-Postmodern Art, or what I like to call the Neo-Sublime.
Michael Newberry is Artist-in-Residence at The Atlas Society. He has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Athens, and Rome. Follow him on Instagram at @artnewberry.